BALTIMORE — With standout center fielder Cedric Mullins out indefinitely with a right groin strain and outfield prospects Colton Cowser and Kyle Stowers currently on the Triple-A injured list, the Orioles wasted little time signing a veteran for outfield depth.
Upon placing Mullins on the 10-day injured list with a right groin strain, general manager Mike Elias signed former New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks to a major league contract, activating him ahead of Tuesday’s game against Cleveland. Hicks, 33, was released earlier this month after batting just .188 with one home run, five runs batted in, and a .524 on-base plus slugging percentage in 76 plate appearances this season and is coming off a poor 2022 campaign in which he batted just .216 with a .642 OPS for the Yankees. A wrist injury limited Hicks to just 126 plate appearances in 2021.
Mullins going to the IL appeared all but inevitable after he pulled up lame running out a ground ball in the eighth inning of Monday’s 5-0 loss to the Guardians, but Elias remains “hopeful that it’s going to be something that’s best measured in weeks instead of months” in projecting his return to Baltimore’s lineup. Manager Brandon Hyde confirmed reserve outfielder Ryan McKenna and starting left fielder Austin Hays remain strong candidates to see more playing time in center field, but the Orioles also wanted a lefty-swinging option, something the switch-hitting Hicks will provide. Elias and Hyde also noted the more spacious left field in Camden Yards makes good range and defense a greater necessity at that spot.
On Tuesday night, second baseman Adam Frazier served as the leadoff hitter with Hays moving over to center field and Terrin Vavra starting the game in left. Hicks was active on the bench after taking batting practice, and the Orioles are hoping a fresh start will benefit him after a tough three-year stretch to finish his tenure in New York. Cowser, the Orioles’ first-round pick in 2021, may eventually find himself in the conversation once he returns from a quad injury sustained earlier this month.
“You’re not going to get a great outcome on everything, but we see stuff with Aaron Hicks that we like, that we feel is like a good fit for us,” said Elias, who did acknowledge Cowser was putting himself in strong position for a major league promotion prior to his injury. “I hope that this is a shot in the arm for him, and I hope he helps us out and helps us win some games. That’s our hope.”
Of course, no one player is truly replacing Mullins, who entered Monday leading the Orioles in RBIs and wins above replacement while on pace to set a new career high in walks. The 28-year-old had played at least 156 games in each of the last two seasons, meaning his bat, defense, and speed won’t be easy to replace for a club that went 34-20 over the first third of the 2023 campaign.
The Orioles will be counting on multiple players stepping up until he returns.
“It would be completely unrealistic to expect to go all year without one of our star players going down for a stretch,” said Elias, who loosely described Mullins’ injury as a Grade 2 strain. “Thankfully, this is a muscular injury. It’s not of any extra normal severity. It’s nothing surgical or anything like that. He’s just got to heal up. I hope it’s not too long, and he should be playing the vast majority of the rest of the season for us is my hope.”